Children of the fire: Babies born during Fort McMurray wildfire bring joy amid chaos

Children of the fire: Babies born during Fort McMurray wildfire bring joy amid chaos

As she lay in a strange bed that night in a shabby hotel room, feeling those first painful contractions, Monique Brunet wondered what remained of the fire-ravaged city she'd escaped just hours before.

The next morning, her family completed their journey to safety, and Brunet gave birth to her daughter, Brielle, in an Edmonton hospital.

The little girl is one of several babies born soon after a wildfire last May forced the entire population of Fort McMurray to flee from their homes. Those children will soon celebrate their first birthdays.

Brunet was 35 and a half weeks pregnant when disaster struck on May 3, 2016. That afternoon, her husband Matt paced in the kitchen as the radio blared, broadcasting news of the fire's unrelenting march. A sense of panic built as the flames devoured homes, jumped the Athabasca River and began to encircle the city.

'There were a hundred different feelings'

"It was all on the radio we were listening to," Brunet said. "And then all of sudden the radio station was shut down, they had to go. We were kind of panicking at that point."

The Brunets, with their young son in tow, decided to make a break for it, and headed north toward the oilsands camps. But with more than 80,000 people trying to escape, the single highway out of town was chaos.

Ash and embers rained down from the black clouds. As throngs of vehicles clogged the roads, they feared even a slight change in the winds could spell disaster.

Then, word came that the highway south had, for the moment, reopened. It was their fleeting chance to escape.  With a single police officer trying to stem the tide of traffic, the Brunets pulled a U-turn and headed the wrong direction down the highway as flames moved from the treetops to the ditches. 

"It was like an Armageddon feeling," Brunet said. "There was just smoke, dust, that one policeman and vehicles flying, driving on the side of roads."

'I still have flashbacks'

The family made it to Athabasca that night, where they stayed in a hotel. Next day, not long after they reached Edmonton, they drove to the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

"I wasn't ready to have a baby that day," said Brunet, whose daughter wasn't due for a couple of weeks.

"[The nurse] checked me, and I was four or five centimetres dilated. And she looked at me and Matt and said, 'We're going to have a baby today.'

Brielle was born hours later, five pounds and seven ounces of perfection.

Despite the joy, the months that followed were "terrible," Burnet said. Born prematurely, Brielle struggled with jaundice and colic. Mother and baby weren't sleeping, and the windowless apartment they occupied during evacuation left Brunet feeling trapped, listless.

"I still have flashbacks," she said. "Now, when I go somewhere in a hotel room and it doesn't have access to a window or some sort of sunlight, I get a bit of anxiety just from being in that place.

"If I see a lot of traffic, I just picture everyone trying to leave Fort McMurray. And if I see puffy clouds, I think smoke. That's kind of how I think about that day."

At least seven babies were born during the early days of the city-wide evacuation, including two at oilsands camps north at the city. Among the children of the fire is Briar Briscoe.

Bill Briscoe and Ninna Forte decided to name their daughter after CBC reporter Briar Stewart, whose radio reports kept them informed as they fled the city. 

Fifteen days after the evacuation, on May 18, Briar Adele Briscoe was born, healthy, howling and blissfully unaware of the chaos that preceded her arrival into the world.

"I was nine months pregnant with her," said Forte. "And we kept hearing Briar Stewart on the news, reporting on the fires. And her name just stuck with us, and we just said, this is such a  big part of our lives, and it's always going to be a big part of our lives.

"And we didn't know what our fate was going to be. All we knew was that there was going to be three of us very soon."

When the timing is right, a few years down the road, they will tell their daughter all about her namesake, and how her hometown survived the fire.

Brunet has similar intentions. She has created a scrapbook for her daughter, documenting the chaotic hours before her birth.

 "It was so intense," she said of that time. "It was hard, I must say. It was one of the hardest things we've had to go through.

"Surreal would be the right word for it."

On her toughest days, Brunet now takes solace in the smiling face of her baby girl.

"Time heals all," she said. "I believe that. It was hard for a while. I used to have bad dreams but I'm doing a lot better than I was.

"Brielle is wonderful. She's starting to take some steps. She's happy. She's a happy baby. Thank God."